E&T #news weekly – we choose our favourite #engineering and #technology stories from the past week

September 16, 2016

Friday 16 September 2016

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Monkeys transcribe Hamlet with new brain-reading tech

Researchers want to use this technology to eventually help people suffering with severe paralysis like good old Steve Hawking. Monkeys with brain implants were able to move a cursor on a screen and transcribe words from Shakespeare and the New York Times. Pretty cool, right? But I have one thing to say. Why on earth did they use Shakespeare? Someone who hasn’t really studied the bloke’s numerous plays, sonnets, poems etc would be completely lost if they were to read, transcribe, dictate or even generally understand an excerpt from one of his works. For example, this is a passage from Hamlet. Ophelia is basically saying that the advice she has been given by her brother Laertes on her relationship with Hamlet was totally hypocritical and she thinks Laertes will not follow his own advice when he pops off to college: “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, And recks not his own rede.” Yeah. You can totally get that from the text, right? This is how I think a monkey’s brain would process the text if they were trying to transcribe it: “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do [do these men not say please or thank you, or something?], Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, [Someone’s a bit pessimistic] Whiles, [While. Okay I’ll write that down. No wait, it’s whiles. Whiles?] like a puffed and reckless [puffed? Like a cushion? Or popcorn? I like popcorn] libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, [This guy sounds like a bit of an idiot] And recks [Recks?! What the hell is that?] not his own rede [Red-e? Red. E. Is it ready? Sounds like ready. What is it? Oh man, now nothing makes sense].”

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Terahertz spectrometer allows unopened books to be read

Researchers at MIT and Georgia Tech in the US have been able to read text clearly on the top nine sheets of a stack of paper and see writing on up to 20 by directing ultrashort bursts of terahertz radiation into the stack and analysing the signals that are reflected back. One day, museums might be able to use the technology to scan the contents of old books too fragile to handle or to examine paintings to confirm their authenticity or understand the artist’s creative process. This really appeals to my twin interests in technology and history.

Reykjavik to go emissions-free by 2040

The mayor of Reykjavik wants to make the Icelandic capital carbon-neutral in less than 25 years. He’s starting from a good position, as the city is already powered by hydroelectricity and its buildings are heated from geothermal sources. The next steps are to restrict urban sprawl and develop a mass-transit system that people will use in preference to driving. Beyond that, it will need some pretty impressive developments before 2020 to make sure that every non-car vehicle scrapped after, say, 2025 (from road rollers to fire engines) can be replaced by a commercially available, economically sensible, clean alternative.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
SpaceX to resume rocket launches in November following explosion

Despite a launch pad explosion that destroyed a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 1 September, the seemingly undaunted company has now said that it will resume flights as early as November this year. The firm is currently investigating what went wrong, and why the rocket suddenly burst into flames as it was being fuelled for a routine prelaunch test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. “We’re anticipating getting back to flight, being down for about three months, so getting back to flight in November, the November timeframe,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said earlier this week during a panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week Conference in Paris. Well, it’s great news, and hopefully soon commercial missions to space will become routine.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Drive to work reaches end of the road in the smart city

Do autonomous vehicles need to become more confident? While freight convoys can crawl along our motorways at night to reduce congestion and save fuel, unmanned passenger vehicles need to contend with other traffic and they need to be more assertive if they are to be more popular with the public, thought delegates to this year’s TM Forum Smart City conference in Yinchuan, China. Autonomous vehicles’ cautious – perhaps even over-cautious – algorithms make it more difficult for them to turn into busy traffic than human drivers edging their way or even forcing their way into busy roads. They tend to hold back and that can mean long, frustrating waits for the occupants. They can also tend to ‘stutter’ down the road, nervously stopping and starting down the road, and this could be made worse by pedestrians’ knowledge that the vehicles will always stop for them – unlike the traffic where I live. Autonomous vehicles should “behave more badly” said one speaker. But how nicely or badly should they behave? The first person to be hit by an unmanned vehicle that just didn’t stop will be very bad for the industry – no matter how many people are killed every day on the roads by manned vehicles.

UK likely to miss renewable energy targets for 2020

It looks like the UK is going to miss its legally binding renewable energy targets for 2020. Brexit means it may not have to pay the EU fine but it probably deserves too. The problem areas for the UK are housing – especially insulation – and transport.

London set to electrify bus fleet

London mayor Sadiq Kahn has announced many more all-electric buss for the capital. For those who don’t know London transport, the frequent bus service is a popular way of commuting in London and they are well used – often full at rush hour. It won’t make much difference to the UK meeting its 2020 targets but its’ a helpful contribution to improving the poor air quality in London.

Reykjavik to go emissions-free by 2040

Reykjavik’s mayor is being much more ambitious in declaring the city will be carbon-neutral by 2040. But it is powered by geothermal energy and to be fair there aren’t many volcanoes near London.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Terahertz spectrometer allows unopened books to be read

I’m not familiar enough with the work of JK Rowling to be certain, but this bit of research from the US sounds close enough to Arthur C Clarke’s dictum of sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic to be something that Harry Potter and friends have achieved at some point with the help of a quick incantation. The serious use of the ability to read a book without opening it in the real world isn’t as exotic as accessing the contents of a dusty, padlock-bound grimoire – there are some paper artefacts so fragile that even trying to lift the cover could damage them to the point where they become unreadable. Scanning with terahertz waves could give archivists the ability to scan the contents with no danger of them crumbling to dust. And there are more prosaic applications in industry, for example to detect defects in vehicle structures that are concealed by several coats of paint. At $100,000 dollars a time though, for now no one’s going to be using it to grab a surreptitious peep at the contents of your diary or other confidential documents.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Reykjavik to go emissions-free by 2040

You know what; after a week spent in Iceland last year, I can believe this! During my visit, I only managed to see the outskirts of Reykjavik, but even in the suburbs the pavements (or ‘sidewalks’ as they say in Iceland, American-style) get heated using geothermal energy from hot springs in winter. Iceland’s capital, like many other towns in that vast yet sparsely populated country, is sitting on top of a large magma chamber that makes the area prone to volcanic eruptions. Through the years, Icelanders have learned to use this precarious geography to their advantage as a clean energy source – an example to be commended and emulated wherever possible. Having all but missed Reykjavik, I did manage to visit Hveragerði, about 50km from the capital, the town that is also known as the hot springs capital of the world. Indeed, Hveragerði and the surrounding area are literally swarming with hot springs, and the locals routinely use geothermal energy not just for heating all their dwellings and Iceland’s biggest public swimming pool, but also for cooking, baking, washing up and even for making their world-famous ice cream! The hot springs’ energy is used in dozens of hot houses in which various tropical and subtropical plants are being cultivated, so some of the bananas we buy in UK. While there, I had a chance to dip into a hot (not burning hot!) spring – very relaxing; and even to cook my breakfast (not very well) in a special geothermal oven – the experience I shared in my last year’s Christmas ‘After All’ column.

Brexit not a threat for UK space sector

It becomes increasingly clear that the multiple myths of the dangers posed by Brexit, from complete economic collapse to the start of World War III, spread by some ‘Remain’ supporters have been grossly exaggerated. Less than three months after the referendum, the British economy is picking up, the pound is recovering its strength – slowly but surely; and the somewhat panicky mood is being replaced with new confidence and dignity. It’s now obvious (to me at least) that, free of excessive controls and regulations, the British space sector, as well as the country’s engineering, science and manufacturing industry, are all in for a new age of growth and prosperity in the post-EU era.

Book review and giveaway: Measurement A Very Short Introduction – David J. Hand

September 16, 2016

By Jade Fell 

Here at E&T we want to make it easier for you to expand your knowledge of engineering and technology-specific matter. That’s why we have once again teamed up with Oxford University Press and are giving the chance for 10 lucky readers to win the latest in the Very Short Introduction series.

9780198779568

Measurement may not sound like the most exciting topic to sink your teeth into as it takes a certain type of person to become excited by a ruler. Yet this book has much more to offer than just a history of centimetres (cm) and inches. Rather, it serves as a brief, but comprehensive glimpse into a social construct that boasts a history that is inextricably bound with the many great leaps forward of civilisation. In Measurement A very Short Introduction, author David Hand traces the origins of measurement back to the beginning of civilised human society, with the birth of agricultural production.

Original units – which relied largely on basic physical objects to quantify length and weight – were of course hugely variable, depending as they did on physical objects. Of course, if there is nothing fundamental leading to the choice of object, other systems of measurement can be adopted. It’s hardly surprising then that a huge number of different systems have been adopted – today we have grams and kilos, pounds and ounces and the dreaded American ‘cup’.

When you take into account the history of units of measurements, measurement itself seems like a fairly vague thing – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. What is a cm? You could say that it is 10mm, or 1/100th of a metre, but how can it be defined on its own? The history is complicated and points toward the need for a unified method of measurement. This became especially important with the rise of scientific experimentation in the 20th century. It’s been a long time coming, but with the birth of the metric system we are getting close, although there are a few stubborn nations who insist on holding on to their outdated ways.

Of course, measurement is not a purely scientific thing, but can also be used to understand social aspects of society. Far from a scientific concept, it spans the entire range of human society, from the purely physical to the wholly abstract. Economic progress can be measured, but it requires a much different system measuring milk or grain – it is something that cannot be conceived with a basic unit of inflation. This, Hand says, is the difference between representative measurement and pragmatic measurement, a wholly different and complex school of thought which is becoming more important to our understanding of society.

Measurement A Very Short Introduction offers the reader a wonderfully accessible route into a hugely complex subject that spans the fields of science, sociology, history and anthropology. From the simple grains and fathoms of old, to GDP, GNI and the modern-day World Happiness Index – the history of measurement has a lot to say about the development of society. Hand has taken a topic that spans almost the whole of human existence and condensed it into a book which the avid reader could easily conquer in an afternoon.

If you want to be in with the chance of winning a copy of Measurement A Very Short Introduction all you have to do is comment on this post by next Friday (23rd) at midday. Ten winners will then be selected at random. Good luck!

Term and conditions
This giveaway is open to UK entrants only and runs until 23/09/2016 at midday. There are tene books available. There is no cash alternative and the prize is not transferable. Employees of the IET and their families may not enter.
A winner will be picked at random and contacted via email. If they do not respond within 3 days, another winner will be picked. Entrants’ details will be used only in connection with this competition and not retained or passed to any third parties.
E&T, as the promoter, reserves the right to cancel or amend the giveaway and these terms and conditions without notice.

E&T #news weekly – we choose our favourite #engineering and #technology stories from the past week

September 9, 2016

Friday 9 September 2016

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Apple finally unveils iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus and Watch 2

Another year, another iPhone. This time it’s the iPhone 7, which actually removes features found in previous years’ models rather than adding new ones, namely the headphone jack and a real, clickable home button (real buttons! those were the days). While the removal of the button is probably the first step towards an entirely software-based home button (like Android has had for about four years) which is a good thing, the removal of the headphone jack has not been received positively. Apple knew this was going to be an unpopular move, which is why it bundled with it two sets of wired headphones that plug into the lightning port and a 3.5mm adapter that users can attach normal headphones to. This pandering seems like it’s missing the point of removing the port in the first place – to push the market towards wireless headphones. Considering Apple also unveiled wireless versions of its standard headphones at the iPhone 7 launch event, surely these should have been included instead to show iPhone buyers that this is the future. Instead the box will simply include a begrudging reminder that everyone really just wants to stick to reliable wires and can’t be bothered to worry about charging yet another device or worrying about inconsistent Bluetooth reception.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Sellafield nuclear plant is understaffed and dangerous BBC alleges

The Incredible Sellafield Hulk is coming! You shouldn’t really joke about how many lives are being put in danger here, but they are putting radioactive waste into bottles. What if someone was like “OOO GLOWING MOUNTAIN DEW! WHAT A HANDSOME DRINK!” Then they guzzle it down and die? Or they are Bruce Banner and are able to stand the nuclear poisoning and become the awesome super/anti-hero that everyone loves. They would be a Cumbrian Bruce Banner. How many people would be able to understand the comic book, what with all of the northern dialogue. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry, pet like…I need to get to the cowey!” Let’s hope they improve things, as they may have an outbreak of incredible green livestock, too.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Apple finally unveils iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus and Watch 2

I have absolutely no interest in ever owning an Apple product, but I was quite keen to see the specs of the new iPhone, if only to confirm my theory that it was going to be as much of a disappointment as the old iPhone models. I was right. First and foremost, I cannot believe that Apple still hasn’t developed an iPhone that can fast charge. Especially considering nearly all new Android phones come with this feature as standard, while costing significantly less than the iPhone’s staggering £599 price tag. And don’t even get me started on that stupid headphone jack. Why would you want to limit your users to only using the headphones supplied in your grossly overpriced box? Some people spend a lot of money on high-quality headphones and probably want to continue using them. I’m also fairly sure I’m not the only one who sometimes uses my headphones while charging my phone – or do Apple users not do this? I know a fair few of you are probably going to go out and buy an iPhone anyway, and that at least one person reading this will go and buy it without even looking at the specs, but I really think you should reconsider. Save yourself a few pennies and go for one of the top-end Android phones instead.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Fish scales help develop biomass power generator in India

The moral of this story is that there is no such thing as waste if you know what to do with it. Indian scientists demonstrated their resourcefulness and successfully used fish scales to create a biodegradable and biocompatible energy harvester that creates electrical energy when exposed to mechanical pressure. Fish waste is abundant in India and the researchers already dream about fish-scale-powered heart pacemakers harnessing the power of the beating heart.

London Underground retires 90-year-old tech in line upgrades

No surprise the London Tube is plagued with signal and all other sorts of failures when some of the technology in use to run the extensive network is …. ehm….. not exactly cutting-edge. But the situation will hopefully change within the next five years. 1920s systems will assume their well-deserved spots in museums and something a bit more modern will take their place. London Underground says that thanks to new technology frequency of trains on Circle and Hammersmith & City lines will increase by 33 per cent by 2020.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Minecraft map has gamers fighting virtual Great Fire of London

350 years after an unfortunate bakery conflagration snafu began at Thomas Farriner’s establishment in Pudding Lane, eventually wiping out most of the medieval City of London and destroying the homes of approximately 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants, the Museum of London recognised the landmark date with – what else? – a Minecraft recreation of the 17th-century City of London, enabling players to follow the path of the fire, attempt to extinguish it with authentic (read: virtually useless) firefighting equipment and hobnob in a blocky way with such well-known London residents as King Charles II and Samuel Pepys. You can also play as Thomas Farriner, although you’d be advised to keep away from TNT if you do, given his track record with highly flammable objects.

London Underground retires 90-year-old tech in line upgrades

On the subject of really old things, in the news this week was the announcement by London Underground that it is finally retiring a 90-year-old station box at Edgware Road, which at time of writing is still ensuring the safe running of trains on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines, just as it has since 1920. The news that London’s Tube still runs in part on relatively primitive technology first installed shortly after the end of World War One possibly wasn’t much of a revelation to anyone attempting to use the Northern Line on a daily basis, but it certainly showed that they really knew how to build things in those days. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t break it.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Parents encourage interest in STEM but ill-equipped to help

Viewers of TV quiz shows like University Challenge will be familiar with the feeling. Jeremy Paxman fires off a question about something you vaguely remember from school science – it could be to do with the periodic table, the structure of the kidney or the electromagnetic spectrum – and you’re reasonably sure you can dredge up the answer from wherever it’s been sitting in your long-term memory for the couple of decades since you sat your last exam. Maybe you’re right more than half the time, but it’s the other half, when you’ve got it hopelessly wrong, that might make you pause when it’s your own children asking for help with their school work. It goes some way to explaining why, although the vast majority of parents acknowledge the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, so many are reluctant to give advice. Even for maths, which most will have studied at least to GCSE level or equivalent, more than a third of parents lack confidence; that figure rises to around half for biology and roughly two-thirds for physics and chemistry. At least energy company E.ON isn’t just highlighting the problem, but has launched a website to help parents and children “painlessly discover the world of STEM”. If you’re among the 46 of parents who admitted in the company’s survey that they would struggle with the sort of exam 13 and 14 year olds sit these days, perhaps you should give it a look.

IET events this September – #engineering and technology dates for your diary

September 2, 2016

September

September sees the number of IET events ramp up as its networks begin their new sessions. Lectures, seminars and technical visits are taking place all over the world, with Local Networks arranging special access to places such as Cathay Pacific City – the company’s international HQ at Hong Kong Airport and Crossrail’s Canary Wharf station.

There’s also a clear focus on education, professional development and registration this month, with workshops and courses galore in the calendar. Why not go along to a workshop to learn more about attained Chartered Engineer status, discover the basics behind project management at a Lifeskills event or attend a two-day course on technical report writing?

This month there is also the dual launch of the 2016 IET Skills Survey and ‘Engineering Work Experience for All’, a new campaign championing the right of every engineering student to have access to practical experience in the workplace. Taking place on 20 September, you can register to attend the free event at IET London: Savoy Place here.

Below are a few of our highlights for the month, but also be sure to check out the full IET events listings to find out about everything taking place near you.

 

06 September, Route to Chartered Engineer, Wellington, New Zealand, workshop

06-08 September, IoT India Congress, Karnataka, India, conference

07 September, CA Models, Stirling, technical visit

08 September, Specification writing, Glasgow, course

10 September, IET London: Savoy Place Tour, open day

10 September, Extra Terrestrial Mapping, Redondo Beach, California, lecture

12 September, How to win a job, Melbourne, Australia, workshop

13 September, Wales SE Healthcare section launch event, Cardiff, seminar

15 September, Ethics for engineers, London, course

16 September, Making an impact with your CV, online, webinar

20-21 September, Technical report writing, London, course

27 September, Crossrail’s Canary Wharf station, London, technical visit

E&T #news weekly – we choose our favourite #engineering and #technology stories from the past week

September 2, 2016

Friday 2 September 2016

Jack Loughran Jack Loughran, news reporter
Amazon Dash Wi-Fi buttons launch in the UK

Amazon’s Wi-Fi connected buttons, dubbed Amazon Dash, sound convenient and perhaps offer a look into what the future holds for online shopping, but the reality is a lot scarier. The idea is simple: users place these buttons around the house near items like toilet roll or washing up liquid and when the product runs low, one push of the button orders a replacement. While the idea itself is fine, it also increases Amazon’s reach ever further into your home. Already, while shopping on the internet for almost any imaginable consumer good, Amazon will be most people’s first port of call. This total and utter dominance over internet shopping is surely a terrible thing for consumers in the long run. The larger Amazon gets, the more difficult it is for any other players to squeeze into the market, stifling any semblance of competition. Right now there really isn’t any other major competitor that can compete. As it heads towards a monopoly over selling goods on the internet, the number of alternative options dwindles as other companies struggle to compete with its low prices. While in the UK at least Amazon has so far not encroached too much into the food sector, or the kinds of household goods that one buys from the supermarket, Dash represents an attempt to gain traction here. If successful, one can foresee a day where virtually all purchases get funnelled through a single, incredibly powerful company. This kind of future has been written about in dystopian fiction before, but the reality is depressingly now on the horizon.

Jonathan Wilson Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Electronic sheep reveals how extreme weather affects flocks

Proof that virtually no aspect of life cannot be improved by technology. Researchers from North Wales – where else? – have developed an electronic sheep to study how extreme weather affects flocks. Two electronic ewes – decked out in thick fleece and equipped with ear tags and woolly tails – were each fitted with a battery-powered heating system and stationed at Bangor University’s research farm. The heating system simulates the heat a real animal would produce when exposed to various weather conditions, in order to measure how much energy the animal needs to expend in order to handle weather-induced stresses. Seeing as the body temperature of a sheep on a hot day can rise to 60 degrees Celsius, there is clearly a genuine need to understand how best to care for a flock. Turns out that more hedges and trees are the simple, natural solution.

Giant airships to start operating in Alaska by 2019

The world’s skies will apparently soon be full of gigantic bulbous airships. If it’s not Airlander 10, it’ll be Lockheed Martin’s Hybrid Airships, which combine the features of an airship, helicopter, an aeroplane and a hovercraft. That’s a heck of a lot of technology convergence in one giant airship. These huge vessels – each the size of a football field, to use that universal indicator of scale – are expected to start transporting freight and human passengers in Alaska and Northern Canada by 2019. The craft, held in the air by helium, can land on every possible surface including snow, ice, gravel and water without the terrain requiring any adjustments.

Rebecca Northfield Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
‘Turing Learning’ allows machines to learn by observation

Robots are learning from other robots now. Interesting. You know this is like the Terminator story. Intelligent machines making other intelligent machines making machines follow their actions and EVERYBODY DIES IN A ROBOT-INDUCED APOCALYPSE. But whatever. I’m sure this sort of thing won’t happen. That’s what Elon Musk’s openAI company is for – making sure robots don’t turn on their creators and kill everyone. Perhaps our world will be a bit like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Bladerunner and “all those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain,” meaning we won’t be culled like poultry, androids will only rebel a little bit and Harrison Ford will hunt the bad droids using the Turing Test. Jolly good show. Remember, all dystopian fiction with robots is entirely possible. This need for us to learn and create intelligent machines is a definite way for Arnie to shoot you in the face without flinching, his laser eyeball giving you the stink eye as he looks into the hole in your head. #JUSTSAYING.

Georgina Bloomfield Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Personal data held by far more companies than internet shoppers realise

Apparently, a new survey has found that online shoppers in the UK are significantly underestimating how many organisations currently hold sensitive information about them. The survey only offered 50 examples across the many thousands of organisations currently in receipt of customer data, from airlines and retailers to online services and utility companies. This is worrying considering everywhere we go there are concerns about privacy and new technology. If a new TV comes out with a camera to read your emotions to what you watch, the first thing you’re going to ask yourself is if it’s a bit Nineteen Eighty Four. But when it comes to giving away your email address to get a voucher for something online or supplying your phone number ‘for delivery purposes’ when online shopping, we never give it a second thought. Are we so used to being asked to give away our data that it’s no longer an issue among the common consumer?

Jade Fell Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Alien life on Proxima b could be discovered in a few years

This week we all got very excited by the discovery of a new Earth-like exoplanet orbiting the closest star to Earth – Proxima b. Where Mars failed to fulfil our expectations for an Earth sister back in the 1960s, Proxima b has risen to the occasion, and offers the latest hope for the discovery of extra-terrestrial life. What’s more, new telescope technology now available means that it could take just a few years to scan the planet for alien lifeforms. I don’t want to get too excited by this news – I do hate to gear myself up for a fall. But my waters are telling me that exciting things are waiting for us on a planet not too far away and I cannot wait to make best friends with an alien. It’s fitting, too, that this planet was discovered this year. It’s felt so horribly lonely down here since David Bowie returned home in January. Who knows, maybe he’ll come back if we finally manage to discover ‘life on Mars’, or, you know, Proxima b. #HERESHOPING

Dickon Ross Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Hinkley what’s the Point? Report finds UK can hit climate targets without it

First it’s on, then it’s off, on again and off again. That’s the story of Hinckley Point C but, industry warned, it’s how the UK’s power supply will be behaving in the future if the UK’s first nuclear power station in a generation doesn’t go ahead. Or is it? A report from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit last week suggests otherwise; it says the UK could achieve the same reliability of supply through other sources of power and making the grid smarter.

Smarter power grid and ‘internet of energy’ would prevent UK blackouts
Renewable energy to power thousands of UK churches

This week, the National Grid also said this ‘internet of energy’ would avoid UK blackouts in the future, although more power stations would help too. And this week thousands of churches publicly backed renewables on the ‘world day of prayer for the care of creation’.

Back-to-school bags packed with £1.2bn worth of tech

“Mum, Dad, everyone at school has got a new phone. Like I am, literally, the only one in the school with this brick – it’s butters. When did you buy this – in the Stone Age?” In fact, you bought it last year, but gadgets move fast and don’t be surprised to hear this kind of complaint after your dear little ones go back to school after the summer break. It seems parents are spending more than ever on packing technology into their kids’ school bags. In my day it just extended to a calculator – and they were controversial. “A calculator!” I hear some of you cry. “You were lucky. In my day it was a slide rule.” Do kids today even know how to use a slide rule? Does it matter?

Vitali Vitaliev Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Electronic sheep reveals how extreme weather affects flocks

I’ve been waiting for this to happen since the untimely demise of Dolly the sheep in Roslin, near Edinburgh, in February 2003, at the tender age of 7. I was then living in Edinburgh and can still remember that mourning feeling that paralysed (well, almost) the great Scottish capital then. Although equally fluffy, unlike Dolly the Clone, the new Lamb of God, created at the Bangor University Research Farm in North Wales, is thoroughly electronic (shall we call it Ellie?) and unable to move, to graze or to baa, let alone to baa baa. It does not seem to have any eyes, so on top of it all, the poor thing is also blind. On the positive side, however, the new sheep is not black and is extremely sensitive to changes of temperature – a very important quality in North Wales, with its short summer and 365 days of rain a year. In fact, the whole purpose of creating Ellie the Sheep was to measure how much energy a normal, non-electronic and not cloned, lamb would require to resist the vicissitudes of the unpredictable Welsh climate. And since “handling the thermal stress” is an important skill to have not just for the sheep, I hope the Bangor Uni researchers won’t stop here and will soon produce an electronic cow, an electronic dog, and – who knows – maybe even am electronic Welshman too? In the meantime, they should concentrate on making a new model of Ellie the Sheep – Ellie Two, who, unlike its taciturn precursor, should be able to baa baa, since frequent baa baa-ing must be costing real sheep lots of energy and cannot be ignored while calculating the overall energy loss or intake. If they succeed in doing so, there will be grounds for renaming their respected scientific institution Baa-ngor University, or even Baa Baa-ngor University. Why not?

Giant airships to start operating in Alaska by 2019

I can see an immediate parking problem here. Let me explain. During a 10-day research visit to Alaska as a Daily Telegraph columnist some years ago, I was amazed (among other things) by the sheer number of private airplanes in its dramatic skies and on the ground too, for no plane can spend all its lifespan in the sky and will have to land sooner or later and therefore must be assigned with a parking space. In Anchorage, Alaska’s state capital, the problem of plane parking was already acute in the end of the last century and has now reached enormous proportions. Owning a private plane there is almost as normal as owning a car in Britain. It is not unusual for some families to have two (or more) planes each in their possession: one for the husband (or wife) to fly to work, and the second one for the housewife (or househusband) to do fly-shopping and take the kids on their daily school flights. I’ve heard of an increasing number of parking tickets being issued to parking-space-desperate pilots by the city’s flying authorities. Where on Earth, I wonder, are they going to park the giant airships , each the size of a football field, even if they commandeer for that purpose all existing American Football grounds on the peninsula? I can only hope they will sort it all out successfully and would like to finish on a more cheerful, even if somewhat gruesome and plane-parking-related,  note – with a joke I heard in Alaska from the pilot of a small four-seater hydroplane that was taking me on a bear-watching expedition to Kodiak Peninsula. In the middle of the flight, one of the passengers (not me) asked the pilot through the intercom: “Can this hydroplane land on the ground?”. “Yes, it can!” the pilot answered. “But only once!”

dominic-lenton Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Uber launches electric car service in London

Like so many other technological breakthroughs that need to attract a critical mass of support to make it into the mainstream, the key to getting drivers to accept the idea of electric cars is probably to just give them a taste of what it’s like to travel in one. Unless you’ve got a friend or relative who’s already invested in one, the most likely opportunity is public transport, so Uber’s plans to have more than 50 fully electric cars ferrying passengers around the streets of one of Britain’s busiest cities by the end of the month could do a lot to get potential buyers at least thinking about investing in one themselves. The car-sharing service intends to introduce the same vehicles in another city before the end of the year, and with more than 60 per cent of its journey miles already accounted for by hybrid cars this could be a significant step in persuading sceptics that it’s a sensible option as well as a virtuous one.

Book review: Dear Data – Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

September 2, 2016

By Jade Fell 

Dear Data UK jacket

Particular Books, September 2016, 291 pp, ISBN 978-1-846-14906-1, £20, Flexibound

When they first met at an arts festival, Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec realised that they had been living oddly parallel lives:. Both were residing in a foreign country – Giorgia had moved from her native Italy to New York and Stefanie, originally from Colorado, was living in London.  They were the same age were both only children and, most importantly, they were both obsessed by data.

Stefanie and Giorgia have spent their lives collecting and organising information from the world around them. As a child, Stefanie delighted in filling in scorecards with her father at baseball games, while Giorgia collected and organised anything she could get her hands on, from buttons to small stones. As they got older, they both realised that they were collecting data and went on into careers as visual designers, creating data illustrations.

From a chance visit at an arts festival, Stefanie and Giorgia decided to try and get to know each other by sharing data. Having only met once, Stefanie and Giorgia began exchanging postcard-sized letters that described what had happened to them each week, but instead of writing what had happened, they drew it. The resulting project spanned a year, 52 weeks and covered 52 themes, from smiling at strangers to smells and sensations. Each week, Stefanie and Giorgia would collect, collate and share data with one another, often containing information about the most private aspects of their lives such as touch,  envy and desire.

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Dear Data is an amalgamation of the project that unfolded from the chance meeting of two strangers who went on to become intimate friends, revealing oddly personal pictures of each woman’s life. Often, aspects of life that would not necessarily be revealed through the simple act of writing can be seen through data. By looking at each other’s infographics each week, Stefanie and Giorgia got to know each other, noticing themes and patterns in each other’s drawings. The resulting works tell a story about the person behind the data. We learn that Giorgia is a control freak, and Stefanie enjoys more than the occasional drink and apologises far too often.

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Dear Data will make you pause and think about what data can reveal about a person. It makes you realise that you don’t need an app to tell you anything new about yourself. Every one of us is a walking data collection, from the money in our bank account to the calories we consume in any given day. Each time we glance at the clock on our office wall, apologise, or take a walk, we are inadvertently adding to a huge data collection that is our lives. This book is a wonderful illustration of just how data-heavy the average person is. As a project, an exhibition and a book, Dear Data is fascinating, beautiful and a treat for the eyes and mind.

Earth-like planet #ProximaB found orbiting #ProximaCentauri – an annotated infographic

September 1, 2016

Scientists have found clear evidence of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri – the nearest star to our sun. The rocky world, named Proxima b, lies within its star’s habitable zone, meaning liquid water could exist on its surface, and it may also be the closest possible abode for life outside the solar system.

E&T news reported the full details of the Proxima b discovery earlier this week.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.

proxima-b

Right, that’s it, I’m leaving the country – #Brexit triggers EU citizenship surge – an annotated infographic

August 31, 2016

While the long-term effects of Brexit remain unknown, one immediate after-effect is becoming clear: a lot of people are seriously thinking about leaving the country. Or at the very least, becoming a citizen of another country.

In the two months since 51 per cent of British voters chose to quit the European Union, embassies and high commissions in London have reported increases in passport and citizenship applications.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.

brexit-passports

US company in massive EU tax avoidance shocker! #Apple

August 30, 2016

Everyone’s favourite future-facing tech titan Apple Inc is facing a whopping €13 billion EU tax bill (plus interest!), after it was decided that the extremely favourable (at least for Apple) tax conditions set by Ireland breached EU rules. Funny that.

The EU ruling decreed that Ireland had illegally slashed Apple’s tax bill over several decades. It is the largest penalty in a three-year EU crackdown on so-called ‘sweetheart’ tax deals. We don’t know about you, but of all the sweethearts we’ve ever had in our lives, not one of them slipped us €13 billion.

E&T news covered the story of Apple’s tax shelter in Ireland in full earlier today.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.

apple-ireland-tax

 

E&T #news weekly – we choose our favourite #engineering and #technology stories from the past week

August 26, 2016

Friday 26 August 2016

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Facial recognition tech to combat terrorism in Germany
Instagram users analysed by algorithm for signs of depression

Some of E&T’s social media followers were uncompromising in their reaction to the news that Germany is even considering using facial-recognition technology to try and prevent terrorist attacks at airports and railway stations. “Facial recognition is the final nail in the coffin to freedom,” commented one. “They can F off if they think they are scanning my face,” a more forthright tweeter agreed. A lot of this is down to an understandable mistrust of machines, whose false positive findings people worry will be hard to argue with. It’s the ‘computer says no’ (or in this case ‘yes’) effect; by the time you’ve been taken to one side, questioned on the basis that a computer thinks you’re a known terrorist and then convinced authorities you’re not, you’ve probably missed the flight and a day’s been ruined. There’s also the suspicion that without resorting to plastic surgery the same thing could happen all over again. We just don’t have the same worries when it’s humans doing the surveillance. London’s Metropolitan Police have employed a team of ‘super recognisers’ for a while who scan CCTV footage for persistent offenders and there’s little fuss made about that. More sinister, to me at least, is the idea that an algorithm thinks it can tell whether I’m depressed by analysing the colours in photographs I post online. Surprise, surprise – researchers have found a correlations between people whose pictures use less vibrant hues and a tendency to be depressed. So next time you consider applying an arty filter that turns your holiday beach snaps into something more Goth-friendly, maybe think again.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Edible batteries pave the way for ingestible medical devices

Having watched an excellent BBC 3 documentary “Dirty Secrets of Clean Eating” last night, I wonder whether the new “ingestible” (as opposed to “excretable”) battery could qualify as “clean” nutrition? The news story does not reveal whether the battery is going to be low-calorie, low-carb and gluten-free, or – on the contrary – rich in calories and carbs and stuffed with gluten. I am worried that the latter guess may prove closer to reality, since as all mini-electronic devices (be they embedded or ingested) go, the new battery must contain at least one chip, and chips (whether made of potatoes, or of silicon – no matter), as we know, are not particularly “clean” or nutritious.

Smart window material efficiently blocks heat and light

Just one quick question, based mostly on reading the headline rather than the full news story: if the new “smart” window can “efficiently” prevent light and heat from entering the building (which to me sounds like not a very nice perspective, particularly during European winter), can it be made even “smarter” and start blocking fresh air too? No light, no heat, no air – what an amazingly “smart” window that would be! The only problem it will be impossible to patent, for a very similar product has been in existence for centuries. It is called “a thick stone wall”. Please correct me if I am wrong, which I probably am.

Machine gun-toting robots launched by Iraq to fight ISIS

The phrase I want to focus on in this news story is “Russian combat robots” which to me sounds like your average special forces fighters – humans programmed to kill and maim, be they Russian or other. Yet, having spent half of my life in the former Soviet Union, I cannot help associating “Russian combat robots” with the so-called cannon fodder, i.e. young and untrained recruits sent to perish in their thousands by their commanders during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978-1980.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Airlander 10 airship crashes during Bedfordshire test flight

The Airlander 10 airship, the world’s largest aircraft, has crashed at the Cardington Airfield in Bedfordshire on Wednesday during its second test flight after a UK revamp. After pretty much everyone in Britain has spent time finding the concept of the ‘flying bum’ pretty amusing, I actually felt quite sad for the poor aircraft to have had an accident so quickly into its flight. The 92m aircraft, which combines the features of a helicopter and an airship, was damaged during the accident, reportedly in a failed landing where the cockpit took most of the damage. I suppose everything should be tested…including crash landings.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Airlander 10 airship crashes during Bedfordshire test flight

The Flying Buttocks crashed during its second test flight. What a bummer. Get it? Do you think it made weird, farting noises because it was damaged during a so-called ‘failed landing?’ Like a balloon parping when it gets deflated. Just 1,000 times bigger. That’s a lot of wind.

Most drone accidents due to technical faults, not users, study finds

Broken communication links between the pilot and the aircraft have been blamed for drone related accidents. According to the University of Melbourne down under, it’s technical problems that lead to drone crashes, not the operators. Apparently 64 per cent were technical problems. That leaves 46 per cent of hooligans with their flying machines getting into mischief for the past decade.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Sabotage-proof chip checks against Trojan infection

It’s rare these days for chips to be manufactured by the same companies that design them, so it’s at least theoretically possible for a dodgy foundry to insert a trojan that won’t show up in post-fabrication testing. Researchers in New York have now developed an external unit that could be manufactured separately and would verify the results of the primary chip. Anything that adds another layer of security to healthcare products or equipment used in critical infrastructure has to be a good idea.

Mars rover design unveiled by Chinese space agency

China’s space agency has released the first images of a rover it plans to send to Mars within the next five years to study the Red Planet’s soil, atmosphere, water and ice distribution, and other physical attributes. China hopes to launch the mission in July or August 2020, but the delayed European ExoMars rover is aiming for the same launch window, so we could see an international race to get there first.

Airlander 10 airship crashes during test flight

Those of us who worked on E&T’s predecessor magazine used to joke about ‘the curse of IEE Review’ whenever something failed soon after we had written about it. I remembered that when I read about Airlander’s unfortunate close encounter with a power cable.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, reporter
Killer robot electrocutes lionfish in Atlantic to save ecosystem

Tuna stocks are low, the population of wild salmon is declining – maybe we all shall eat lionfish instead? They say it’s tasty and there is a lot of it, especially where it should not naturally be (thanks, humans) and it’s messing up coral ecosystems and destroying native fish population. An international research team is now testing an ingenious method of killing lionfish with a remotely controlled robot that takes advantage of the creature’s natural gullibility. “Lionfish are not naturally afraid of anything, so they swam in and around it,” said John Rizzi, director of US-based non-profit RISE, which developed the robot, when describing the first tests. What happens is that the robot places its two electrocuting paddles around the patient lionfish and then strikes. I know that pest is pest, but that reminds me a bit of some Nazi extermination camp practices – just go have a shower, no big deal.

Earthquake-proofing cities with engineered materials

Too late for Italy and the more than 240 people who have died in the 6.2 earthquake this week but this research brings hope that in future people living in tectonically active regions could sleep without fear. Engineers believe that entire cities could be protected from devastating seismic waves using special shields made of the so called metamaterials. These engineered materials have properties not seen in nature. Metamaterials are known from photonics, where they alter optical waves and make objects appear invisible. Similarly they could modify the powerful Earth shakes into harmless vibrations.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Autonomous octobot is first 3D-printed entirely soft robot

The octopus is frequently hailed as a wonder creature, its mysterious agile yet skeleton-less body inspiring all manner of new scientific thinking. The latest brains turned on by the octopus’ unique form have come up with a 3D-printed soft robot – nicknamed the ‘octobot’ – that could herald a new generation of completely soft, untethered autonomous machines. Where previously electric power and control systems, such as batteries and rigid circuit boards, have kept soft-bodied robots either tethered to an off-board system or rigged with hard components, this little octobot could revolutionise how humans interact with machines.

Plastic membrane offers super-fast electric vehicle charging

Electric vehicles are getting a lot of government and private sector attention these days, in tandem with autonomous vehicles. It seems inevitable that the two technologies will converge and rise together, as it’s highly unlikely that by the time autonomous vehicles become commonplace on the world’s roads – within as little as 10 years – that fossil fuels will still be the predominant propulsion system for their engines. The primary movers behind autonomous vehicles are also the types of companies keen to embrace cleaner, greener engine alternatives – e.g. the Google X team’s fleet of electric autonomous vehicles and Tesla cars, with their electric engines and autonomous AutoPilot mode. Battery charging and charge retention are accordingly key areas of research in this field, with new findings coming thick and fast from the world’s laboratories. The latest finding, from Ohio State University (OSU) researchers, concerns a thin plastic membrane that stops rechargeable batteries from discharging when not in use and allows for rapid recharging – two holy battery grails in one. The technology controls the way charge flows inside a battery and was inspired by how living cell membranes transport proteins in the body.